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Politics and Economy:
Nickel and Dimed In America

Between 1998 and 2000, I went to three different cities, and tried to support myself on the wages I could earn as an entry-level worker. I waited tables, I cleaned the toilets of the rich, I fed Alzheimers patients in a nursing home, I sorted stock at Wal-Mart. All these were difficult, exhausting jobs, and it made me understand what a serious mistake our nation made with welfare reform.

View the Commentary
Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreich
on Getting By in the U.S.A.

The theory behind welfare reform was that there was something really wrong with welfare: They were psychologically damaged —lazy, demoralized and they are that way because of welfare, that welfare causes poverty, some people said.

Never mind that most people on welfare of course, were busy raising children and working on and off whenever they could, the new law just says everybody has to get off of welfare and into the workforce, to sink or swim. This hasn't worked out too well.

The math just doesn't work. The average woman coming off of welfare since 1996 earns $7/hour, that's $280/week before taxes, and you can't support children on that, or even one person.

I know because I tried it. And no matter how carefully I pinched pennies I couldn't get my wages to cover basic expenses..Like rent, at least $500/month plus utilities, like transportation to and from work, at least $60/month, and then if you are a working parent, you have hundreds of dollars a month in childcare expenses. Now if there's one thing that's really demoralizing, it's working hard and not making enough to live on.

Here's a simple theory of poverty: It's not a psychological condition. It is, above all — a consequence of shamefully low wages and lack of opportunity for anything else.

In one poll, 94% of Americans said that they believe, if you work, you should make enough to live on. This is a notion that is basic to American values, I'd even say it's part of our social contract. Now we have to make it a reality.

Tell us what you think.

Read the study on American attitudes toward low-wage workers.

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